How do you go about describing the feeling of setting off on a long trip, where you will come to know different people and places, different delights and disasters, and not feel at home until you return from where you came? Any adventure worth its time cannot be one in search of comfort, for to leave one’s home is to leave the ordinary, the mundane, the routine for something novel or familiar, though not quite known. It is with this mindset, a healthy mix of excitement and nervousness, that my longtime friend Connor and I set out to experience American darkness, in all its glory and inevitable disappointment.
Inevitable disappointment might sound like a pessimistic way to frame a road trip like this, but to me it just highlights the impact light pollution has on American night skies. It raises the question of how should our night skies look. Should there be an orangish-grey haze filling the sky, or should there be stars and planets and nebulae and all other manner of celestial objects accessible to the amateur astronomer and the naked eye? Without such a barrier to seeing the stars as suburban light pollution, I wouldn’t be compelled to travel several hundred miles from my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, all the way to the Southwest to be find real opportunities to experience truly dark night skies.
Sadly, however, scientists using Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) satellite imagery have demonstrated how widespread light pollution is over the continental United States (Left - Falchi et al., 2016). It covers most every square mile of our landscape. It cannot be exported. It cannot be ignored. It is highly visible, if not almost impossible to unsee once you know what you’re looking at, which leads me to one of the reasons why I will be documenting the night sky, where I am, and how I see it (more or less, with some quality control performed on Photoshop). If I can highlight for people what ugliness it is they are seeing in their own skyscape, then I hope they will begin to understand what it is they are missing out on.
Devil’s Tower (Jan. 7th) –
After driving about eleven hours through the day, Connor and I arrived at our AirBnB in Hulett, Wyoming, just a stone’s throw from Devil’s Tower. Coming from -18°F weather in Minneapolis, the almost 60-degree change in temperature made a windy 44°F feel mild on our faces.
Twilight had just set in as we got settled in our cozy little basement apartment, so we wasted no time and quickly set back out to the tower whose silhouette loomed on the drive in. As an International Dark Park, I had high expectations for what kinds of light pollution mitigation was placed in the infrastructure surrounding the national monument.
As we approached, however, I noticed how the one restaurant in the area still had up white Christmas lights and had an upward facing spotlight brightly illuminating a sagging American flag. The intersection just up the road from this restaurant too was brightly lit, though at least these street lights were shielded, and only placed at, what I would assume to be, during the summer, a busy junction.
Closer to the entrance of the park itself, I was again disappointed to find a post office and store both with bright flood lights illuminating the surrounding landscape.
This disappointment disappeared as we drove further and further into the park.
At the base of Devil’s Tower, we stood in awe. Out of nothing came a soaring pillar of stone whose sharply ridged walls became clearer as our eyes adjusted to the consuming darkness. The vivid vertical streaks did indeed look like bear claw marks, just as the Indigenous peoples of this area told stories about. The tower was said to have lifted seven of the fairest women up and away from the bear trying eat them. Those seven then become the brightest stars of what is known in Western star knowledge as Pleiades. It has since been considered a very sacred place among the Plains Indians.
This grouping of stars, as well as Orion and so many others stood out brightly despite the partly cloudy weather. A waxing crescent moon stood low near the horizon.
Not fully satisfied with the view from the parking lot, we began hiking the trail up towards the tower. Lit by nothing but moonlight, the path was faint but well trodden on. We walked silently, from the outsides of our feet, in. We heard twigs crack, leaves rustle, the wind was howling around the jagged face of the tower like a lost soul. Neither of us said a word. Ice passed through my heart and chest. Whether it was a spirit passing through me, or my instincts telling me I was being watched, I will never know, though upon reaching the car Connor saw a long-tailed beast scurry off into the dark. This was bobcat country, and we very well were being stalked.